Maduro blames usual suspects for blackout in Venezuela

Hunt for saboteurs as much about galvanising regime as swerving responsibility

Venezuela’s president Nicólas Maduro seems to be channelling the spirit of Casablanca’s Capt Renault in his response to the blackout that struck his country a week ago.

Seeking enemies to blame for the catastrophic collapse of the national grid that engineers are still struggling to overcome, his regime has been rounding on its usual suspects.

Shortly after the power went last Thursday evening, leaving most of the country without electricity, running water or telecommunications for days, the chavista regime identified the US “empire” to the north as the source of the sabotage.

Then on Monday it was the turn of another old enemy – local media.

Secret service agents arrested journalist and prominent regime critic Luis Carlos Díaz as he rode his bike home after finishing his evening radio programme. He had already been publicly fingered by Diosdado Cabello, one of the hard men in the chavista leadership, as involved in causing the blackout.

On Tuesday it was the turn of Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who in January declared himself president and has now been recognised by more than 60 countries as Venezuela's rightful leader. Tarek William Saab, the country's chief public prosecutor and a loyal chavista, announced that his office had opened an investigation into his "alleged involvement in the sabotage".

Saab’s move came a day after Maduro promised “justice” for those responsible, whose goal he declared was to create chaos to justify a call by the “oligarchic” national assembly, of which Guaidó is the head, for US military intervention and “an occupation of our country”.

Officials said they would deliver evidence about US involvement in the blackout to a team from the United Nations's human rights commission visiting Caracas this week. So far the proof the regime has offered has been thin. It will take more than references to US senator Marco Rubio's Twitter feed and clips from phone-ins broadcast by Díaz over the internet to convince anyone but chavismo's die-hard supporters that the US, working with local quislings, caused the national grid to collapse.

For years now power shortages have been a regular feature of daily life in much of Venezuela, especially away from the capital Caracas.

The regime blames these rolling blackouts on the “electricity war” being conducted against it by the US. But engineers familiar with the national grid have more convincingly argued that the government itself is responsible for the system’s decline.

The roots of the crisis, these engineers say, are similar to those in other key sectors of the economy also in turmoil – gross mismanagement by chavista political appointees, lack of investment, corruption and a brain drain caused by professionals fleeing the country.

Giving such warnings carries risks. Last year Elio Palacios, the chavista leader of a trade union in the electrical sector, was detained by agents from the same intelligence service that hauled in Díaz on Monday night. His offence was warning that power cuts were the responsibility of the "illiterate" team of the army general in charge of the national grid rather than sabotage.

So Maduro’s scramble to find suspects to hang the blame on is understandable, lest the blackout reinforces Guaidó’s case that Maduro is responsible for the abject state of the country and must go.

Since he replaced his predecessor and chavismo’s founder Hugo Chávez in 2013, Maduro has overseen a near 50 per cent contraction in the economy, subjecting Venezuelans to the worst decline in living standards by any Latin American country in modern history.

Hyper-inflation has helped tip an estimated 90 per cent of the population into poverty while imports have collapsed by 80 per cent, sparking hunger.

Maduro has somewhat insulated himself from the consequences of his own economic ineptitude by moving to snuff out the last vestiges of Venezuelan democracy following the opposition’s crushing victory in the 2015 election for the national assembly.

Until then a majority of Venezuelans had been willing to overlook chavismo’s corruption and political repression so long as the economy held up. But they were unforgiving once it started to tank, handing chavismo its biggest electoral defeat since coming to power in 1999, prompting the regime’s swing to dictatorship.

But if voters will not likely get a chance to deliver their verdict on the government’s handling of the electrical sector in a free and fair vote any time soon, it does not mean Maduro has nothing to fear from the blackout.

"This crisis has reached a climax now and puts the government at great risk of a fracturing within chavismo itself, especially with the military, which is the fundamental pillar of Maduro's government," says Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Datanalisis consultancy in Caracas. "This pillar could give way if there is a risk of the country falling to pieces and Maduro is dramatically increasing repression because he has to create a government of fear in order to prevent this fracture from occurring."

The hunt for saboteurs is as much about keeping the regime unified, amid the chaos provoked by the blackout, as it is deflecting opposition charges about its own responsibility for the collapse.